MIAMI — Miami insurance agent Tom Hilton will have a keen eye on the College World Series championship series that begins Monday, June 25 in Omaha, Nebraska.
Arkansas and Oregon State meet in the best-of-three championship series.
While this is the Razorbacks’ ninth trip to the CWS, it’s the first time they’ve made it to the finals since 1979 — when Hilton was pitching coach.
“There are a lot of memories and thoughts,” Hilton said. “It’s just a great event.”
The Razorbacks eliminated defending national champion Florida 5-2 Friday, June 22.
Hilton has owned Tom Hilton Shelter Insurance, 231 South Main, since retiring as a coach.
The 1979 Arkansas team went 46-13, and won the NCAA East Regional at Tallahassee, Florida, in four games.
At the CWS, which had a true double-elimination format then, Arkansas beat Pepperdine, 5-4, Arizona, 10-3, and No. 1 ranked Texas 9-4, but suffered a 13-10 loss to Cal State, which had battled back through the losers’ bracket.
The Hogs suffered a 2-1 loss to Cal State in the title game.
“It was a ball club that came together and had a very good year,” he said. “There were a lot of players who went on to play professional baseball and in the major leagues. It was just a great group of guys.”
Hilton had a starting rotation of weekends included Rich Irwin, Steve Kruger and Scott Tabor.
“They all won over 10 games that year,” Hilton said. “I don’t know if that has ever been done or ever repeated.”
Tabor holds the Arkansas records for victories, 34, and complete games, 28.
The Razorbacks’ other College World Series trips were in 1985, 1987, 1989, 2004, 2009, 2012 and 2015.
“It’s just so hard to get there, then to work your way to the finals...” Hilton said. “I can remember after the CWS, people would say ‘we will get them next year,’ but very few teams go back to that thing year after year.
“Thirty-nine years later, it’s the first time they are playing for the national championship.”
A key player on that ’79 team was second baseman Johnny Ray, who is a member of the Northeastern A&M Athletics Hall of Fame.
Ray, an all-Southwest Conference performer with the Hogs, went on to play for the Pittsburgh Pirates and California Angels.
Among the other players on the 1979 team were Ronn Reynolds, who caught for the Mets, Phillies, Astros and Padres, and center fielder Kevin McReynolds, who played for the Padres, Mets and Royals.
“We had a bunch of guys who were not only successful in baseball, but successful in life,” said Hilton, who prepped at Joplin Parkwood High School and graduated from Missouri Southern State College in 1976.
His first two seasons as a coach was at Diamond, Missouri, then became a graduate assistant at Arkansas and later became Norm DeBriyn’s pitching coach (1978-1982).
“It’s a special place that will always be in my heart,” Hilton said.
Hilton recruited DeBriyn’s successor, Dave Van Horn, as an infielder from Winnetonka High School in Kansas City, Missouri.
Hilton became head coach at Labette Community College in Parsons, Kansas, where he posted a 627-221 record in 17 seasons.
He was a pitching coach in the 1991 Olympic Festival in Los Angeles and was an assistant coach on the USA Junior National team in 1992.
Hilton was inducted into the Joplin Sports Hall of Fame in 2008.
“Tom was a good recruiter and an excellent pitching coach,” DeBriyn said on Hilton’s Joplin Sports Hall bio page. “He stressed mental toughness and was very good mechanically. He was very much a part of building Razorback baseball to a national power.
“What really impressed me was the way Tom instilled discipline in his players and how hard they always played for him. He was fair and his players respected that.
“I also remember how he cared for each individual and the knew it.”
Hilton said he and DeBriyn still stay in close contact as he does with many others on that team. “Norm DeBriyn is the reason you are watching Arkansas (in the finals),” Hilton said. “He built that program, built it to an unforeseen level of success.”